North Carolina voters watch the first debate.
Photo: Justine Miller
Photo: Justine Miller

A Trump-Clinton battle royale in must-win North Carolina

Green, 58, is a former “hippy-dippy chick” grown increasingly conservative. She’s a mother, drug counselor and registered Democrat. She worries about terrorism, immigration and infringments on the U.S. Constitution, the Second Amendment in particular.

And she hasn’t decided whom to vote for — the exact type of politically engaged, fence-sitting voter that Trump and Hillary Clinton need to win North Carolina and, possibly, the White House.

A battle royale is underway in one of the most hotly contested battleground states in the country, with the dwindling number of undecided voters in the cross hairs of the Trump and Clinton campaigns. Presidential polls show a dead heat in North Carolina, ratcheting up the importance of voters such as Green.

A pollster here at the university, in the heart of the state’s Piedmont region, put the number of undecided voters at 10 percent. Trump and Clinton, accordingly, visit the Tar Heel State just about every week seeking to sway elusive and uncommitted voters.

North Carolina’s changing demographics make it a state in play. Once reliably blue, North Carolina refused to join its Deep South brethren who turned overwhelmingly red the past three decades. Voters seem to enjoy sending a Republican to Raleigh or Washington one year, only to elect a Democratic governor or senator the next time around.

In 2008, for example, North Carolina went for Barack Obama. Four years later, it preferred Mitt Romney. Meanwhile, conservative white Republicans in the suburbs and countryside lost clout to newcomer moderates and liberals who cluster in Raleigh, Durham, Charlotte and Asheville. North Carolina today is decidedly purple.

And riven by a slew of highly controversial issues — transgender rights, police shootings, coal ash spills and voting rights challenges — that make this year’s election more critical than usual and wholly unpredictable. Toss in an unpopular governor up for re-election and an incumbent U.S. senator fighting for his political life, and North Carolina’s already schizophrenic politics turn even more combustible.

“I’m very open to listening to both sides and both candidates,” Green said before returning to the gymnasium to hear Trump. “I have not made up my mind. It’s a very unusual election because of the dynamics of the candidates. And it is a confusing time for me and some of my friends.”

‘Always been a battleground’

Clinton visited Raleigh last Tuesday and focused her speech at a community college on the previous night’s debate and Trump’s qualifications, or lack thereof, to be president. Trump, in High Point two weeks ago, spoke of terrorism, immigration and an impending Pacific Rim trade deal that he labeled “a disaster for North Carolina.”

The state, the central Piedmont region in particular, was hit hard by the North American Free Trade Agreement, which gutted the textile and furniture industries and cost an estimated 350,000 jobs. Few states, though, benefit today from global trade as robustly as the Old North State, whose economy has been revolutionized over the past generation.

The Research Triangle Park boasts thousands of well-paying engineering, pharmaceutical and telecom jobs. Charlotte, at the western edge of the Piedmont, is a financial juggernaut, home to Bank of America. Good universities and low taxes have also attracted droves of Northern and Midwestern transplants to the urbanized Piedmont, where the election will likely be decided.

“We have always been a battleground state. It’s not a recent phenomena. We sent Jesse Helms to the Senate and we’ve had Democratic senators, too,” state Sen. Tamara Barringer, a Republican, said before a candidates forum in Fuquay-Varina, near Raleigh. “We are no longer a Republican or Democratic state. We are unaffiliated. And that may change some election outcomes. We will continue to be a battleground state because of the changing demographics.”

High Point University released a presidential poll last week showing a virtual dead heat between Trump and Clinton. The poll, taken before the debate, largely mirrors other state and national surveys of North Carolina voters. It also shows that 10 percent of likely voters remain undecided.

The undecided, though, were asked who’d they vote for if the election were held today. Clinton took a 42 percent-40 percent lead, well within the margin of error. (Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson got 10 percent.)

“It’s a really close race,” said Martin Kifer, who runs the school’s Survey Research Center. “But Hillary Clinton has a pretty big advantage as far as personal characteristics (such as) caring about people and middle-class values. When it comes to the issues most important to voters — the economy, jobs, fighting foreign threats — then Donald Trump has a modest edge.”

Robert Roth raises grass-fed Black Angus cows and sells the meat, along with butter, whole milk and buttermilk, at the Farmers Curb Market in Greensboro. He doesn’t trust Clinton and faults her husband for signing NAFTA.

“Trump wants to shut our borders down and bring manufacturing back. He’s on the right track,” the blue-aproned Roth, 68, said as the lunchtime crowd dwindled. “Those people who lost an income or gone bankrupt are fed up with politics as usual. That’s why I like Trump. We have got to straighten out Washington, D.C.”

Tremuir Fuller says Trump would wreak havoc in Washington and ruin Obama’s legacy of health care, disentanglement from foreign wars and economic revitalization.

“Relationships with our foreign allies may not survive Trump. I don’t think he’s mentally prepared to deal with them. We don’t want to start no world war,” said Fuller, 27, a Raleigh restaurant worker who was applying for a second job in Cary one recent, rainy morning. “This election is big. It could make or break the country.”

Fuller is young, black and a city dweller — demographics that play to Clinton’s electoral strengths. Nearly one in four North Carolina voters is African-American, and Clinton, like Obama, is relying on them for victory. Turnout will be critical.

Roth is white, old and a rural denizen — demographics that play to Trump’s electoral strengths. The High Point poll, for example, shows that whites without college degrees (Roth has three degrees) are more likely to vote for Trump. Yet, whites with college degrees vote for both candidates in near-equal numbers.

“And Hillary Clinton has shown a bit of a gender gap vis-a-vis Donald Trump such that women, particularly older women, are more likely to say they’ll vote for her,” said Kifer, the pollster.

Down-ballot races could be crucial

The North Carolina race for the White House is further muddled by a slew of controversial state issues and their impact on down-ballot candidates and turnout. None looms larger than the acrimonious and costly fight over LGBT rights.

Charlotte’s liberal City Council passed a law early this year allowing transgender men and women to use whichever bathroom they prefer. The GOP-dominated General Assembly killed the Charlotte ordinance, which many legislators said would allow “male predators” to enter women’s bathrooms.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who’s up for re-election, quickly signed the so-called “bathroom bill.” His opponent, Attorney General Roy Cooper, opposes it. The U.S. Justice Department sued North Carolina claiming the law violates civil rights.

North Carolina has since suffered an estimated $400 million in lost convention, concert and corporate business due to the legislation. The NCAA and Atlantic Coast Conference sports leagues — college basketball is a religion in North Carolina — pulled their tournaments from the state.

Most polls show North Carolinians largely oppose the bathroom bill and hold McCrory accountable. The governor trails Cooper by 4 to 9 points, according to various polls. Trump, who initially opposed the legislation, now supports it. Clinton says the “very mean-spirited” law should be repealed.

“Donald Trump doesn’t represent our values,” said Virginia Elam, a High Point University senior protesting the candidate’s appearance on campus two weeks ago. “He brings unwanted hate. He represents racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia and, really, just bigotry.”

The Republican-controlled Legislature approved a number of voting restrictions in 2013, including new identification requirements, same-day registration and fewer early voting days, that “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision,” a circuit court judge ruled in July. The legal victory should make it easier for tens of thousands of blacks to vote, most likely for Clinton.

Many North Carolinians remain unhappy with the McCrory administration’s response to the discovery of wells tainted by toxic chemicals, possibly from coal ash runoff from nearby electric power plants. And then there’s the fallout from September’s shooting of an African-American man by Charlotte police. The killing, and the ensuing violent protests, will likely invigorate voters on both sides of the racial divide.

“I have never seen North Carolina as polarized as it is today,” said John Hettwer, a Trump supporter and president of a payroll and benefits company in Cornelius, north of Charlotte. “A lot of people thought that Trump would hurt the down-ballot races, but I think it could be the other way around.”

To see why there is no longer anything certain politically about the South, click here.

To see why Alabama remains a GOP stalwart while uncomfortable for incumbents, click here.

To see how demographic changes turned Virginia into a battleground state, click here.

To see how South Carolina briefly flirted with purple but remains settled on red, click here.

To see how Texas GOP embraces Trump while still wishing Cruz had won the nomination, click here.

To see why Florida could once again tip a presidential election, click here.

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